Confession of a ‘conversus’

According to the chronicle of Gaspar Ofhuys, he joined the Red Cloister monastery at the same time as Hugo Van der Goes, sometime in 1475. In later years he became prior of the monastery and wrote in The Chronicle of the Red Cloister about an event in Hugo’s life when the artist suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Although Ofhuys states that this occurred “perhaps five or six years after his [Hugo’s] profession” (1480-81), historians date the actual recording in the chronicle between 1509-1513, possibly as much as three decades after Hugo’s traumatic experience. Ofhuys also wrote in the chronicle: “In the year of the Lord 1482, Brother Hugo the conversus, who made his profession in this house, died.”

Ofhuys didn’t elaborate on how Hugo attempted to self harm, but the artist has shown the method and weapon he used in at least four of his extant paintings. The St Vincent Panels also gives witness to the steps taken by Hugo to injure himself. This is located in the section known as the Panel of the Prince where Hugo van der Goes is placed in a very prominent position of honour, immediately behind King João 1 of Portugal.

Hugo uses a ‘jigsaw’ technique to build relationships with surrounding figures, so parts of the Hugo ‘piece’ will have a connection to parts of the figures around him. The cheek-to-cheek arrangement with the man on his right works in two ways: as a connection to his spiritual ‘father’ or director, Thomas Vessem, and also pointing to the source for the arrangement and narrative, the double-head relationship from the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge, where the devil and temptation lurk in the background.

For whatever reason, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas may have been a thorn in Hugo’s side. He was also a brother at the Red Cloister, a donatus, and a step up from Hugo who was classed as a conversus. He was with Hugo and other fellow monks returning from a visit to Cologne when Hugo is said to have attempted to kill himself. Ironically, it was Nicholas who was the source for Gaspar Ofhuys’ report in the chronicle. Offhuys confirmed the this when he wrote: “As I learned from the account of brother Nicholas […] he [Hugo] even tried to do himself bodily harm and to kill himself had he not been forcibly restrained with the help of bystanders.”

So here’s how Hugo reveals his version of the incident– a kind of confession – and placing his account on record long before the Ofhuys chronicle report of what had happened.

Firstly, Hugo has confirmed he suffered with depression. The circled depression in his hat is an analogy of Hugo’s state of mind.

Hugo is also portrayed as a male falcon, a tercel (from the Latin tertius) a pointer to his “third order” status as a lay member of a religious order. There are also two other reasons why he is depicted as a falcon, one which links to the Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, and the other to the genus term for birds of prey (including the falcon), Falco, derived from the Latin falcis, a sickle, and referring to the claws of the bird.

The claws reference is a pointer to the devil’s hand on the shoulder of the Good Judge in the mentioned fresco, while the sickle is the weapon Hugo used to self-harm.

The falcon portrayal is enhanced by the habit’s hood or cowl, just as a hood is used to cover the head of the bird to keep it in a calm state.

I’ve also colourised part of Hugo’s cowl to emphasis its curved shape as a sickle, the tool Hugo used to cut his neck. Although the necks of the other heads show wrinkles, the white line on the left side of Hugo’s neck is a sign of a healed scar.

The part of the hood resting on Hugo’s left shoulder, colourised orange, replaces the devil’s claw and represents a pelican at rest. “In medieval Euope, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion [and atoning sacrfice] of Jesus since about the 12th century” (Wikipedia).

Did Hugo plan his own passion? If so, where did he keep the sickle hidden? Could it have been in the hood, symbolic of the pelican’s pouch?

Hugo’s pelican is positioned as resting, crouched facing the collar and chest of the man on his left. Close inspection of the white collar suggests it represents a shrouded figure in its tomb, and so the pelican now symbolises a sphinx-like tomb guard.

Could this piece of iconography refer to the man on Hugo’s left as being dead and buried, someone very close to Hugo? Another painter, perhaps?

Probably the most telling painting of Hugo’s attempt at self harm and recovery is the Adoration of the Shepherds dated at 1480. I shall post a presentation on the iconography in this painting at another time, but for now I show one significant feature in the painting that points to Hugo cutting his neck. The gangling shepherd arriving on the scene on one leg is Hugo. In his right hand he draws back the sickle-shaped cowl to reveal blood marks around his neck. The blood has also dripped onto the shepherd kneeling below him.

Unfortunately, during the process of the painting’s recent restoration, the blood marks have been completely removed from Hugo’s neck and the kneeling shepherd. Thankfully there is a digital copy of the painting published online before its recent restoration, and so preserving Hugo’s own ‘confession’ and account of his breakdown.

Hugo told it as it was

The man looking directly at the viewer in this detail from the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up the St Vincent Panels, is the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. He wear a habit because around 1477 he became a lay brother (third order) at the monastic community based at the Red Cloister (Rood Klooster) near Auderghem, and which was part of the Windesheim Congregation. As an established painter he was allowed to continue his work, accept commissions, and even receive eminent visitors.

A fellow monk and chronicler, Gaspar Ofhuys, recorded some decades later that Hugo suffered from a bout of depresion and made a suicide attempt in 1482 while returning from Cologne with some fellow monks, stating at the time that he was damned. The Ofhuys chronicle, supposedly produced between 1509 and 1513, is said to be the only written source for the claim that Hugo suffered with depression and had attempted suicide, although art historians point to a change of style in some of his paintings that indicate all was not well with the artist.

Ofhuys’ chronicle states that Hugo died soon after his breakdown and thefore the date is generally put at 1482 or 1483. But there is no official record of the painter’s death and the question that needs answering is just how many paintings did Hugo start and complete in the short period between his breakdown and time of his death, likely to be less than a year if the Ofhuy’s record is to be taken as gospel.

What historians haven’t taken into account is Hugo’s own version of his depression and attempt at self-harm, expressed in at least four of his extant paintings as well as the St Vincent Panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

If the date of Hugo’s breakdown in 1482 is accepted as accurate then it follows that any work he produced after his recovery should not precede 1482, even the St Vincent Panels. In this painting and four others I know of, Hugo demonstrates the method he used to self-harm. Whether this could be considered a serious attempt at suicide or just a cry for help during a bout of depression, I cannot judge. What is known is that Hugo made a recovery, confirmed in the Ofhuys account and by Hugo himself. How long he lived after that is open to speculation.

More on this and the method Hugo used to self-harm in my next post.

UPDATE: June 21, 2020

In a previous post I described how the three men to the left were probably related, Hugo’s father cheek-to-cheek with his son Hugo, and behind them Hugo’s half brother, Nicholas. I also suggested that Hugo’s father may have been in a spiritual sense, perhaps the prior of the Rood Klooster, Thomas Vessem, who took care of Hugo after his breakdown.

What I hadn’t picked up on at the time was the the connection between the St Vincent Panels and The Good and Bad Judge freso at Monsaraz which portrays one of the judges with two heads. The left head was the basis for the St Vincent figure while the the head in profile was applied to the so-called kneeling prince in the Panel of the Prince.

However, the motif is repeated for another group in the same panel, the one shown alongside. The two front men are joined at the cheekbone, the father figure being the good and compassionate judge, the profiled head being the judge tempted by the devil at his shoulder, except that instead of the head being shown in profile it is depicted face on – the face of Hugo. As for the tempting devil behind him, there’s a choice of two. My preference is for Nicholas (an apt name), Hugo’s half-brother! Notice also how the devil’s head in the fresco is cropped at the top, just as Nicholas is. It is also worth noting that Fr Thomas Vessem is placed immediately behind St Vincent, sharing in his light, and suggesting that Hugo considered the priest a saintly man, perhaps for the reason he was instrumental in the painter’s recovery.

Made in Portugal, or Flanders?

I’m now beginning to consider that the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves may instead be by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”, according to what the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote when he visited Ghent in 1495.

Be it Gonçalves or Van der Goes who had brush in hand, there is certainly a strong Flemish influence to be found in the St Vincent Panels. Not only are there portraits of at least seven Flemish artists, the panels also incorporate several references to the Ghent Altarpiece and other Flemish works.

A close associate of Hugo van der Goes was Dieric Bouts (pictured), one of the Flemish portraits in the SVP. Bouts was famous for his work known as the Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, produced for and still housed in St Peter’s Church, Louvain. Hugo, or was it Nuno, adapted one of the triptych’s panels (shown below) as the basis for the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent Panels.

The two men fitted out as friars are in fact two theologians associated with the original Louvain University, Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailluwell, who were assigned to assist Dieric Bouts on theology content in the painting.

The bearded friar was inspired by the biblical figure of Abram whose right hand is raised in blessing (as in the SVP). Even his cream-coloured cloak is matched. The cloak covers Abram’s left hand. This motif has been transferred to the central friar portrayed as Varenacker. The foremost friar is represented by Bailluwel.

The ‘twins’, the two lookalikes behind the bearded friar, are mirrored by the men guarding the armoured king of Sodom and his white horse – two Dieric’s, like father, like son – both artists!

The king of Sodom is also name-checked in another of the St Vincent Panels, the Panel of the Archbishop. He’s the kneeling knight to the right of St Vincent.

More on this in a future post.

When stones cry out

One of many questions asked about the St Vincent Panels is: Why are there so many figures crammed into the panels and who do the men standing in the back rows represent?

The St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

It’s as if each panel is divided into two sections – front stage and back stage. In all there are a total of 60 figures in the panels. The St Vincent figure is featured twice and central around which the other 58 figures are gathered, perhaps explaining why the painting is sometimes referred to as the Adoration of St Vincent.

A scene akin to this is the central panel in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece – the Adoration of the Lamb. That an adoration scene is common to both works is not without coincidence. Both paintings drew inspiration from the Monzara fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge. Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert were the first to incorporate elements of the freso in their famous work. The painter of the St Vincent Panels knew this and followed the example of the Eyck brothers, except that he also drew further inspiration from the Ghent Altarpiece which had been completed in 1432.

Monsaraz Castle, once a home to the Templars.

There is little doubt that Jan van Eyck visited Monsaraz during one his diplomatic excurrsions to Portugal. The infamous stolen Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece points to the Good and Bad Judge fresco in Monsaraz. The Knights of Christ panel references Monsaraz castle and its Templar connections. The Hermits panel, is a pointer to the caves in the area adopted as hermitages. The Pilgrims panel is probably the most interesting. It depicts St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river, probably the Guadiana that borders Spain and Portugal and runs close to Monsaraz.

St Christopher and his band of dog-head pilgrims. Ghent Altarpiece, Pilgrims panel.

With his collared hair and flowing beard, St Christopher, reputed to stand over seven feet tall, has the appearance of a hairy dog. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.

The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time!

The adjective describing someone as having the head of a dog, or jackal, is cynocephalic, and it is this term that Van Eyck has taken and linked to local landmarks near to Monsaraz – the megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex (since relocated to a new site close to Monsaraz) and in particular the large phallic menhir that stands central among the square ring of stones. Van Eyck has referenced these stones in three of the Ghent Altarpiece panels, sculpting them into a form representing biblical scenes.

Sculptured rocks, a feature in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Some of the stones are inscribed with symbols and these too have been incorporated into both sets of panels by the painters.

Megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex, now relocated and known known as the Xerex Cromlech (below)

Nuno Gonçalves has also taken the stones and reformed them to represent the figures in the St Vincent Panels, particularly the Saint himself portrayed as the tall menhir. Fifty-five stones form part of what is now known as the Xerex Cromlech. There may even have been 60 before the stones were relocated, which would have matched the number of the figures in the painting. A similar site known as the Almendres Cromlech is near to Évora, about halfway between Monsaraz and Lisbon. This megalith may also have inspired both artists, although there are almost 100 stones still standing.

While Gonçalves made some canine mentions in his painting he chose instead to generally refer to a race of people generally known as Beakers. He did this in two ways, first by alluding to the making of pottery and secondly by emphasising the noses of some of the figures to link to narratives in the painting about birds and beaks.

Upright men from the Panel of the Knights… Beakers, Potters and Painters.

For instance: the brown earthy colours prominent among some of the men in the background are meant to suggest the earth in which the monoliths stood, but in in the Panel of the Knights the four men wearing cottas (or surplices) is linked with the word ‘terra’ (earth) to form terracotta, the brown colour of the earthenware produced by local potters. The range of ‘beaker’ styles are represented by some of the men’s hats.

“I was there!”

Last week I published an article on my website revealing how The Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz in Portugal, partly inspired the famous St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves. I also stated that the SV Panels were also influenced by the Ghent Altarpiece.

What I didn’t know at the time is that Jan van Eyck had also sourced The Good and Bad Judge fresco for the Ghent Altarpiece. At sometime during one of his diplomatic visits to Portugal he must have travelled to Monsaraz and viewed the fresco.

Here’s an example of how Van Eyck recycled some of the fresco’s iconography for the Pilgrims panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. The youth in red is meant to portray a young Jan van Eyck. Just as his statement on the wall in the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck was visually confirming: “I was there!”

My presentation on The Good and Bad Judge is at this link.

St Vincent Panels – new discovery

While studying the St Vincent Panels just recently, I discovered an important link to another work of art, the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge. The fresco was a primary source of inspiration for the SVP attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

Full details of the discovery are published on my website at this LINK.